Michigan State: The Spartans are coming off a program record eleven victories. Besides the historic win total the season was filled with excitement and uncertainty. No one will forget where they were when MSU won in overtime against Notre Dame, using the now infamous “Little Giants” play. The recorded 78,411 in attendance will undoubtedly swell over the years, much as it did when these two squared off in the “Game of the Century” back in 1966. More people will claim to have attended these games than what Spartan Stadium could possibly hold. That victory was tempered by the heart attack suffered by Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio later that evening, and filled the program with uncertainty as to what would be the final outcome. Thankfully Dantonio was able to pull through and eventually return to the sidelines, but it was during those weeks in between that the character and fortitude of this team became evident. The players and staff rallied around each other and maintained their focus, winning football games. As successful as the season was, MSU still showed it was in need of major improvements in certain areas. The offensive line was put together using duct tape, bailing twine and chewing gum, and against better opponents their lesser talent was exposed. The defensive line did a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage, but struggled mightily in sustaining a consistent pass rush. 2011 has MSU in an unfamiliar position, that of being a defending conference champion. With the bulls-eye painted squarely on their backs MSU will now be challenged to prove they are not a one-hit wonder but a legitimate yearly conference contender.
Offense: Much of their key components offensively return with Kirk Cousins back for his senior year and third as starter. Joining Cousins in the backfield are undoubtedly the best trio of backs in the conference if not the nation, Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper. All three possess speed, power and enough shiftiness, but in differing degrees. Baker can slip a tackle and out run defenders to the end zone. Bell has a linebacker mentality and when he lowers his shoulder into a defender it is typically with bad intensions. He will simply run right through people. Caper displays a bit of those attributes that characterize Baker and Bell. He has sprinter speed, but not quite as fast as Baker. He’ll run through tackles like Bell, but not as forcefully. Regardless of who is in the backfield the results are the same, positive yards for MSU and manageable down and distance for the proceeding play. When Cousins and the MSU offense decide to air it out they have a strong contingent of players capable of making plays. Five of the Spartans seven top receivers in 2010 return, including seniors B.J. Cunningham, who led the Spartan with 9 TD receptions, multi-dimensional Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and tightends Brian Linthicum and Garret Celek. This group of talented upper classmen are complemented with a host of young talent that has shown they will be more than capable to take over. Benny Fowler is a taller version of the electrifying Martin, and Dion Sims, back from a year long suspension could possibly be the best tightend in the group. With the departure of OC Don Treadwell who accepted the head coaching position at Miami of Ohio, MSU promoted Dan Roushar, and he has publicly stated that he desires a more vertical offensive attack. If true, MSU could potentially have both a 1000 yard rusher and multiple 1000 yard receivers in 2011. The old adage it all starts up front could never be truer. MSU has to replace three senior starters from 2010. As difficult as that may sound, the three graduated players were probably the weakest links, but due to injury and inexperience those three were the best option at the time. With a complete year under their belts, MSU’s highly rated but extremely young offensive line talent will begin to have their presence felt. MSU could very likely start two RS freshmen, OT Skyler Schofner and center Travis Jackson. Both came out of spring ball holding slight leads over the competition. The final spot available, left tackle, could be manned by senior Jared McGaha or 2011 JUCO recruit Fou Fonoti. The remaining two spots are held by All-Big Ten Joel Foreman, a four year starter at left guard, and second year starter,RS junior Chris McDonald. The hope is that the combination of skilled veterans and talented youth will gain a measure of cohesiveness during preseason camp and continue to develop to form a dominant unit.
Defense: The 2011 Spartan defense will try and establish itself as being just as effective while having to replace 4 of their top five tacklers from a year ago, including first team All-American linebacker Greg Jones. MSU returns six starters from a defense but only one from the front four, DE Colin Neely. Neely was one of the last John L Smith recruits, and though he was not a threat as a pass rusher he performed adequately against the run. Returning is All-Big Ten first team selection junior DT Jerel Worthy who is the linchpin of this group. Accompanying Worthy on the inside are senior Kevin Pickelman and junior Anthony White. Pickelman was out all spring due to a neck injury, providing White the opportunity to show his athleticism. MSU has lacked an edge rush for several seasons, and Dantonio has focused much of his recruiting effort to correct this problem. 2011 might finally start to show some dividends as junior Tyler Hoover and sophomore William Gholston had strong spring camps. Hoover started to come on late last season providing a plus performance rating. Gholston started the year slowly and showed some flashes of his potential talents, however a late season injury to his shoulder required surgery, and he was just starting to get back into the swing of things at the start of camp. If one or both of them take the next step in their development they will terrorize opposing quarterbacks for the next two seasons. Replacing one outstanding linebacker will result in diminished production from this unit. Replacing two is definitely a cause for alarm. MSU will be trying to replace the production points of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon from the list of Max Bullough, TyQuan Hammock, and Steve Gardiner. Bullough appears to be the front runner as he saw time as a true freshman, filling in for Jones on occasions. Last years starting STAR linebacker, Chris Norman is being moved to Gordon’s former SAM position. Denicos Allen has a slight edge in earning the vacant STAR spot. The MSU secondary matured last year and finally produced acceptable numbers coming away with 12 of the teams 17 interceptions and only allowing 19 TD passes, down from 32 the previous year. Returning are senior safety Trent Robinson who led the team with 4 interceptions and was fourth on the team in tackles, and junior cornerback Johnny Adams. Joining these two are sophomores Darqueze Dennard at cornerback and Isaiah Lewis at safety. Both saw action as true freshman and did nothing to embarrass themselves with their performances. Over all the defense has sufficient, quality depth at all positions that should help overcome any injuries they may incur.
Special Teams: The most famous punter in college football last year was Aaron Bates, but probably not for his kicking prowess as one would suspect even though that was excellent with a 45 yard average. Bates was instrumental in the successful outcome of both Little Giants and Mouse Trap. His impact to the team both in punting and executing trick plays will be hard to replace, as will his leadership. RS freshman Mike Sadler has the unenviable task of replacing an MSU legend. Reflecting on his spring performance there shouldn’t be too much of a concern with his kicking ability, but his ability to pull off the trickery of his predecessor may be difficult to duplicate. What a difference a year makes. Heading into 2010 Dan Conroy was facing the same situation as Mike Sadler, having to replace a Spartan legend in Brett Swenson. Conroy stepped in and didn’t miss a beat on his way to a first team All-Big Ten selection. Conroy, a junior, connected on 14 of his 15 field goal attempts and was 45 for 46 on PAT’s.
Outlook: MSU does have some concerns that need to be addressed if they have any notions of repeating or bettering last year’s 11-2 record. The offensive line, especially its young replacements have to jell, quickly. The Spartans have a great many quality skill position players on the offensive side of the ball that can only be productive if the line can open holes and keep Kirk Cousins upright. Defensively the young players in the linebacking and secondary units need to step up their performances. Some showed that ability during their limited playing time but will now need to perform at a constant high level all game long and not just a series or two. The out of conference schedule of Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, Notre Dame and Central Michigan doesn’t appear too daunting. The big early season contest in South Bend against the Irish will tell a great deal about the potential of this team. The conference schedule unfolds favorably as the get Ohio State in Columbus before the return of their suspended players and coach. After that it becomes a murders row as the will face Michigan and Wisconsin at home, followed by a trip to Lincoln to face Nebraska. MSU could go anywhere from 3-0 to 0-3 during this stretch, and depending on the outcome of their clash with the Buckeyes the Spartans could find themselves in the thick of a conference race or playing to salvage a season. The final four games provides a small breather as they have Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern, with Iowa and Northwestern being on the road. This is a team that could potentially win every game or struggle to achieve .500 if the young players don’t mature. I believe MSU will go 6-2 in the conference and depending on the ND outcome they will either be 3-1 or 4-0 for a 9-3 or 10-2 record.